Federal efforts to speed up the removal of spent radioactive fuel from power plants like the mothballed San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station are gaining momentum and inspiring guarded optimism among local officials.
Critics, however, remain deeply skeptical.
In January, the U.S. Department of Energy launched a new push to create temporary nuclear waste storage sites in regions eager for the business, currently in West Texas and New Mexico.
Several such sites could be up and running while the prickly question of finding a location for a permanent repository – the root of the present paralysis in nuclear waste disposal – is hashed out.
“That could mean moving the fuel from San Onofre a decade earlier than is envisioned now, maybe more,” said David Victor, who chairs the San Onofre Community Engagement Panel. The volunteer group of academic, industry, environmental and local government representatives advises the plant’s owner, Southern California Edison.
“I am cautiously optimistic,” he said.
Victor, director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at UC San Diego, met with officials in Washington this month to convey populous Southern California’s eagerness to solve the nuclear waste storage problem. An update on those efforts, as well as the latest on plans to dismantle the shuttered twin reactors, will be presented at 6 p.m. today at the San Onofre Community Engagement Panel’s quarterly meeting in Oceanside.
Decommissioning the plant south of San Clemente is expected to cost $4.1 billion and be mostly completed by 2030. But spent nuclear fuel is expected to remain on the beachside bluff much longer.
Some 72,000 metric tons of highly radioactive waste has piled up at 75 commercial reactor sites in America over the past half-century, according to a recent review by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
That’s not how it was supposed to be.
To encourage the development of nuclear power, the federal government passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, promising to accept and dispose of spent fuel and high-level waste by Jan. 31, 1998.
Utilities operating nuclear power plants made payments into a Nuclear Waste Fund to pay for disposal.
About $750 million a year was collected from ratepayers, and the disposal program’s funding grew to $41 billion over three decades. But the federal government never accepted any commercial nuclear waste for permanent disposal.
The nuclear industry sued, and a federal judge found that the U.S. Department of Energy couldn’t continue charging for a service it not only wasn’t providing, but wouldn’t provide for many decades. In 2014, utilities stopped collecting the charge – about 20 cents a month on the average electric bill. After the government spent $10 billion on a now-abandoned plan to create a permanent disposal site at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, about $30 billion remains in the fund, earning about $1 billion in interest a year.
Local governments, including San Clemente, Laguna Beach, Oceanside, Encinitas and San Diego County, are pressing Washington to fulfill its obligations.
“We all want it gone,” said San Clemente City Councilman Tim Brown last month.
“We are very much in alignment with our nearby communities, which are making efforts to get the nuclear fuel moved off-site to another location,” said Maureen Brown, Edison spokeswoman. “Before it can be moved off-site, though, it has to be in a dry storage canister for transport. We are continuing with preparations to expand dry storage and get all the fuel out of the spent fuel pools.”
That’s supposed to be done by 2019. Edison has chosen Holtec International’s Hi-Storm Umax underground system for dry storage. The fuel is expected to remain in an “underground monolith” on-site through 2049, when Edison assumes the federal government will take custody of all spent nuclear fuel.
The Department of Energy will begin public meetings on the new push for interim storage sites on Tuesday in Chicago.
A second hearing is scheduled in Atlanta on April 11 and a third in Sacramento on April 26.
“(W)e in the communities surrounding SONGS have a keen interest in removing the spent fuel from the site,” Victor wrote in a recent memo to the Community Engagement Panel. “As the option of Yucca Mountain has stalled, spent fuel has been backing up at sites around the country with no place for permanent disposal. The idea of consolidated interim storage (CIS) could be a solution.
“As you know, the politics of this are complex and difficult in part because CIS is seen as a rival for Yucca Mountain, and many important politicians have adopted a ‘Yucca only’ approach to spent fuel storage,” Victor continued. “It is important that whenever we talk about CIS we portray this as a complement to Yucca Mountain and a complement to other long-term permanent disposal options, such as deep borehole technologies that are currently being tested. My sense from the meetings is that Yucca and CIS are, indeed, complements.”
San Onofre’s storage system will be part of a real-time experiment, as Edison partners with the Electric Power Research Institute to develop inspection techniques to monitor casks as they age.
No entity has previously done what Edison is planning – burying this kind of spent fuel in dry casks for decades. Critics have raised concerns about the ability of the casks to withstand the heat of the fuel over time.
Some don’t think temporary storage is the answer.
“If such a site were ever built, it would be a disaster for the hosting community,” said activist Ace Hoffman of Carlsbad. “DOE calls it ‘consent-based,’ but how can future generations that will have to deal with the mess give their consent? And why on earth would they?
“DOE calls it ‘interim,’ but what exactly that means has never been defined, except to mean ‘until a permanent repository opens up somewhere.’ Who’s going to fall for that line?”
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